Jacques Pépin Interview

On May 21, 2011, acclaimed chef, author, and television personality Jacques Pépin was recognized for his contributions to Boston University with an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Chef Pépin co-founded (with Julia Child) BU Metropolitan College’s master’s program in gastronomy and certificate program in the culinary arts, which established the tradition of integrating hands-on culinary experience with the serious academic study of cuisine in society. Pépin, who has been a part-time faculty member at MET since 1983, has taught hundreds of BU students. He has additionally drawn over ten thousand residents of greater Boston to the University by hosting informal seminars, demonstrations, discussions, and special cooking events through MET’s Lifelong Learning programs. In 2005, MET honored Pépin with the Roger Deveau Memorial Part-Time Faculty Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Metropolitan College had the opportunity to sit with Chef Pépin to discuss his life’s work, his outlook on food in society, and his honorary degree.

MET: How did you first come to be involved with Boston University?

Pépin: Actually a number of years ago, I got involved at the beginning when the culinary program was created. I just happened to give a class at Wesleyan University for the summer program. I gave a class on a history of food in the context of civilization and literature. And someone from BU audited it, and they were creating [BU’s culinary] program. I think it’s like 28 years ago. And they said, “Would you like to come?” And I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So I came a couple of years. Even Mrs. Silber and her daughter came to my class. It got bigger and bigger under the direction of Rebecca Alssid. I’ve kept coming and it’s been great!

You co-founded both the Certificate Program in Culinary Arts and the Gastronomy master’s program with Julia Child?

I taught there with Julia … with the Certificate Program in Culinary Arts. A three-month program, hands-on, working with like twenty, twenty-five chefs of the area. Those certificate students are helping me to do a demonstration tomorrow, where we are going to feed a hundred people.… We have a degree in liberal arts, a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy, which is the program that Julia Child and I wrote … which to my knowledge is the only one in the country.

What is unique about Metropolitan College’s culinary arts program in comparison to more traditional culinary institutes?

I feel that the program here is very open. There are great resources in Boston of chefs and restaurants. It used to be different. I remember 30 years ago, it was a bit of a gastronomic wasteland around here. But now, the culinary scene has been exploding, and it’s amazing. So Rebecca Alssid, director of the program, is very knowledgeable about this and knows all of the chefs of Boston. So they all come here to cook with the certificate program or to give classes for Metropolitan College—so this is a terrific program.

Why is it important to recognize food as a topic that deserves academic inquiry?

You know, food, years ago, was at the bottom of the social scale. Any good mother would have wanted their child to marry a lawyer, a doctor, an architect… Certainly not a cook! Now we are geniuses. I don’t know what happened in the last twenty, thirty years. But to give you an idea: In 1968, I graduated from Columbia University and then went to the graduate school—I did a master’s in eighteenth-century literature. I actually was doing a PhD, and I never wrote the thesis of my PhD because what I proposed was a history of food in the context of civilization and literature. At that time, I think it was 1970, they told me, “Are you crazy?” Food was not recognized at all. And after, it started changing, still recognizing food very often through the guise of anthropology, through the guise of history, through the guise of sociology, and so forth. But now we’re offering that Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy. So, food as a legitimate subject has been recognized. … Now we actually have some quite interesting theses, master’s theses, written here in the program.

How can food make a difference in the way people interact with each other?

Food is the central part of my life, certainly. I mean, for me, I am defined by my culinary identity. But at my house, everything happens around the table. The time that is spent around the table with the family is extremely important, and more and more people realize that—especially now when people don’t eat together, so they don’t talk to one another. When my daughter was three years old, many, many years ago, she came home and said, “Mom, what’s for dinner?” My wife would say, “Food.” And it’s still “food” now. We sit down, we eat, and now I’ve been married 45 years and I don’t remember one day in those times that I didn’t sit down with my wife. We spend an hour at night to have dinner together, sharing a bottle of wine, sometimes two. My daughter and granddaughter were raised in the same way. So for us, you know, you learn everything around the table from tolerance to discourse to ideas. You discuss your day of school, your problems. You discuss many, many things. It is always around the table that those things happen. For us, the process of sitting down, eating together, spending time together—it may be the pinnacle, if you want, of civilization in many ways, that type of interaction that happens there. When you lose that in a family … they don’t talk to one another for years sometimes. They don’t really know one another. You know one another around the table. So sit down, eat with your kids.

You’ve published 26 books and hosted 11 cooking shows, in addition to your efforts at Boston University and the French Culinary Institute. You clearly have a passion not only for food, but also for teaching people about food. Where does this passion come from?

You know, maybe my French background (you may have realized that I have a French accent). I am kind of very Cartesian, should I say? I like things broken down and explained, and I’ve written many books on that technique, that method … and I’ve done many, many television series because, for me, television is the perfect media to show food. So I have done 12 series of 26 shows with KQED, the PBS station in San Francisco. I work also here with WGBH. And I teach in different schools, including of course, BU. And to me, it’s always a shot in the arm to work with the students, and to explain and to break down the idea, and to see someone smile. And you know, as cook, you bring pleasure to people. When people see you, they smile…. You bring pleasure. There really is no political implication, or racial implication, or social implication, religious implication in what we do. You know, everyone is equal around the table whether you are black, white, yellow, or whatever color you may be, and whatever creed you may have. Around the table you are equal—and that’s a great thing.

Can you reminisce about any particularly memorable moment in your tenure at Boston University, in the classroom or in the kitchen?

I’ve had many, many wonderful moments at Boston University, certainly with Julia Child. At some point in the late 80s, mid-80s, I was already working with KQED in San Francisco, the PBS station. I said, you know, we really should do a special, because we used to give large classes here in room 117, as well as Sherman [Union] and different places with large groups. We eventually did that special for PBS, which was the most watched cooking show, I was told during that time, of any in the PBS system. We taped it here at BU, and it was called “Cooking in Concert”—a three-hour type of show. We had like 500 people as guests, and that show ran on the PBS station all over the country for several years. Eventually we did another “Cooking in Concert,” again at Boston University, again organized by Rebecca Alssid. And it was the genesis of, eventually, a series of 26 shows that I did with Julia—we taped in her house in Cambridge—which was showed all over the country on the PBS station. So those were great moments. There are many, many other moments: working with culinary students; also, having other chefs of the Boston area coming and eating together; or, with my friend Jean-Claude [Szurdack], going to different restaurants all over the country. It’s always a pleasure to be here, we have great moments.

You’ve received many prestigious awards in your career. What does it mean to you to be recognized by Boston University with an honorary doctorate?

There is a certain irony for me to get a doctoral degree from Boston University, of course. When I consider that, as I said, my doctoral dissertation was turned down at Columbia University many, many years ago, because the subject was not academic enough (that is, food)—to now be recognized … as a doctor of humane letters for my work in the culinary world, there is a certain irony. It shows how much the world of food has changed in America in the last twenty, thirty years. It is an amazing thing.

What is something you would recommend every parent should teach their kids about food or cooking before they go off to college or become independent?

You know when I was a kid, life was simpler. Everybody had a garden. I mean, in France, I remember going to the garden with my father, my mother, and all that. So we knew where things grew from. Now it disappeared, but it is coming back; even in town, even in New York City and in Boston, you have community gardens where people go. I would take the kids to community gardens. If you can, have a little spot in your backyard. It is always exciting for a child, you know, to see where the food comes from…. It’s part of nature, it’s part of the way life is. A child should know about that…. Those tastes that you have as a child remain with you for the rest of your life. That becomes something very visceral, something that becomes part of who you are—you know, those tastes, the tastes of your mother. And there is no place as comfortable, as comforting, for me, than the kitchen. When a child comes back from school, you sit in the kitchen to do your homework you hear the voice of your mother, the voice of your father, the noise of the kitchen equipment, the smell of the kitchen—and those stay with you forever.

Is there a current trend in American cooking that you think will have a lasting impact in cuisine?

Cooking in America has been absolutely amazing for me. I have been here half a century, actually 52 years, and I remember coming to New York in 1959, 1960—there was only one salad in the supermarket: that was iceberg. Period. There was no shallot, no oriental vegetable, no leek, no herb. There was no mushroom. I remember going to a specialty store in New York and saying, “Where are the mushrooms?” They say, “Aisle five.” That was canned mushrooms. You had to go to a specialty store to get regular white-button mushrooms. So the supermarkets, the restaurants, cookware, the cook shops, the food columns in magazines, in newspapers—three thousand cookbooks published last year, it is amazing—hundreds and hundreds of restaurants, and people getting into that world. So the food has exploded to a level at which it is amazing. After the food came the wine. Development of wine, which existed already since the nineteenth century, had basically disappeared during prohibition. So it came back starting with people like Mondavi and so forth. After the wine it was bread. After the bread, now we’re discovering cheese, charcuterie—the making of paté, cured meats, salami, sausage—and so forth. So there is a revolution in the food world in this country, which is absolutely amazing. And that involves millions and millions of people, and certainly the food world represents billions and billions of dollars, so that’s a great business to be in.

What you do think about the rising prevalence of locally produced food in cuisine today?

People are rediscovering the seasons. And that’s very important. What they call the photochemical, which is the chemical out of vegetable, we know some of it—you know, cruciferous vegetables are good for your intestines, red vegetables are good for your intestines also—but the point is that we don’t really know that much. We’re discovering more and more, and we’re discovering one thing: that processed food is very bad for you. Living with the seasons, which has always been done, in all societies, is really the best thing to do. When you buy a tomato in full summer, first, it really tastes good; second, that’s really when it’s cheap; and third, that’s nutritionally when it’s the best. You know, cooking with local product, now with the locavore type of situation where we are going to farmers market, this is very exciting. This is something which, as a child, was always this way. I didn’t even know there was anything different. First time I went to a supermarket was when I came to America; I’d never been in a supermarket before. It did not exist in France 50 years ago. Now we have beautiful supermarkets. Supermarkets have never been as beautiful in America as they are today. When people tell me that no one cooks anymore, what do they do with the stuff at the end of the week? Someone is buying it somewhere, so somebody must be cooking. In addition to that, we’re going back to buying local, which is good for the economy;  which is good for the food; which is good for local farmers; for taste; good for children; good for everything. So buy local. Cook with your friends. Cook with your kid. And share the food with the family.

What advice would you give to someone just beginning a culinary career?

You know, the food world represents over $950 billion dollars. From your McDonald’s to Burger King to you name it—to imports/exports, to the big oil industry, to traveling, to the big hotels, to many, many other things—there is only one thing in common, and that’s food. When people say, you know, I want to go into the world of food, where do you think I should start? I say start in the kitchen, like the program we do at Boston University, a three-month program, it kind of opens your eyes. And whatever you learn here, you will use. That is, it’s not wasted time. That is, to become a food critic, or a food photographer, or a food writer, or if you work for concierge in a big hotel, or work in the dining room, or for exports/imports, or whatever you may do related to food, what you learn here you will use, and that’s important. So when you start somewhere, you start with the food because it is still the core of the whole business.

What is your absolute favorite kitchen implement, if you can only choose one?

Probably my hands, because you crush, you squeeze, you strain, you tear, you do a lot with your hands. That being said, a good sharp knife is really necessary.

What do you hope will be the lasting legacy and cultural impact of your cooking work in general?

You know, I was told the other day, or I heard someone say on television, that there are 500 culinary programs on television, on different channels. I don’t know whether that’s true, but it is amazing the variety. Certainly, when I started, 25 years ago, doing shows for PBS, and Julia was doing shows with PBS—prior to me, actually, she is the one that started it in 1963—there was no other commercial channel showing television [cooking] shows. It’s very, very different now, and at a different level. Some of them are more entertainment than cooking. Some of them are more cooking. Some of them are more traveling, and so forth. And everything is fine with me—as long as it brings people into food, it’s great. For me, I always feel that I like to teach, and I think that Julia felt the same way, you know? So even though she used to tell me, “You’re too serious, this is entertainment,” (and she was absolutely right saying that) at the end of the show, she said, “Okay, what did we teach today? What did they learn?” And it’s important for me to teach, to get something out to the food, to see the smile on people’s faces because they’ve learned something new and all that. So this is my way of cooking. Some people like it. Some people don’t really care one way or the other. Some people maybe don’t like it. But it’s fine. You cannot really please everybody. You see, what happens is that if I go to the Food and Wine Festival in Aspen, for example, which I have done for 26 years—maybe the biggest food and wine festival in this country, with like 5,000 people, they are all food groupies—everyone is there, from Lidia Bastianich to Mario Batali to Emeril Lagasse, and so forth. Well, I’ll have people coming to me and saying, “You know, I look at all the shows on television and you are the best!” And the reason is that the only people who come talk to me are the people who like me! The people who don’t like me go to talk to, I don’t know, Bobby Flay or someone else and say, “You know, I look at all the shows on television, and yours is the best.” That’s the way it works, and that’s the way it should be. You cannot please everybody, and frankly you cannot really escape yourself, so you do it the way you feel. I mean we are not actors. We are cooking on television, so I don’t have rehearsed lines or foods. So you cook as it comes, and explain it the way you would do it. Some people relate to that like you, and some don’t really, and it’s fine.

I feel that, personally, this is what I want to leave people with: an idea of who I was—and certainly if they learn something from me, it’s a nice legacy.